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Robert Downey Sr., Director of Experimental American Movies, Dies At Age 85

Writer and director Robert Downey Sr.'s anti-establishment ethos and experimental streak would go on to influence a new generation of filmmakers, including directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Jim Jarmusch.
Writer and director Robert Downey Sr.'s anti-establishment ethos and experimental streak would go on to influence a new generation of filmmakers, including directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Jim Jarmusch.

Robert Downey Sr., a filmmaker and writer who played a major role in New York's experimental film scene, died Wednesday in his home from complications due to Parkinson's disease. He was 85.

"Last night, dad passed peacefully in his sleep after years of enduring the ravages of Parkinson's..he was a true maverick filmmaker, and remained remarkably optimistic throughout," his son, Robert Downey Jr., wrote on Thursday in an Instagram post.

Downey Sr.'s absurdist style and irreverent sensibilities came to define his movies and plays, balancing anti-establishment sentiments with a playful sense of experimentation that brought on a truly singular era of American cinema.

Downey's breakout film, Putney Swope, is a satirical comedy about a Black advertising executive who is accidentally appointed chairman of a powerful advertising firm. The movie skewers the way race and power function in corporate America at a time when both were subject to increased awareness.

"This is the era of advertising becoming a completely pervasive and never-changing facet of American life," film critic Bilge Ebiri told NPR. "He's recognizing that advertising speaks to all sorts of things in the American subconscious."

Downey wasn't afraid to defy conventions in other ways as well. In another one of his films, 1968's No More Excuses, Downey plays a confederate soldier lost in time. To shoot one scene from the film, Downey wandered into the middle of an actual live baseball game — without permission — and in character, told a player he was looking for the "yankees." He wound up in jail for the stunt.

"When we think about underground cinema, experimental cinema, we sometimes mistakenly have this notion that it's all heavily symbolic, incredibly art-y, filled with deep meanings — and somehow you need a PhD to understand all this stuff," Ebiri explains. "If I had to compare his movies to anything today, I would say they resemble comedy sketches, or even YouTube videos."

In that way, Ebiri argues, it might be most accurate to consider someone like Eric Andre his contemporary.

Robert Downey Sr. gave his son, Robert Downey Jr., his first-ever role in the 1970 drama Pound, a movie about dogs, played by human actors, who are waiting to be euthanized at the pound.

In a 2003 interview with Fresh Air, Downey Jr. reflected on his father's artistic legacy. "He was very much revered and hailed [as] this just, you know, super innovative guy," he said. "I knew that my dad was something really, really, really special."

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